The Life of Francis of Assisi by Donald Spoto
The Life of Francis of Assisi by Donald Spoto
The last uttered words of Francis of Assisi, minutes before his death, to his long time companions Bernard and Giles was this: “I have done what is mine. May Christ teach you what is yours to do.” (p. 215)
All who are attempting to follow Christ must decide what our discipleship will look like. Perhaps too often we don’t decide. We just follow the flow of those around us, not realizing that we have unique choices. This book was a look at Francis’s life, his conversion and the facets of his faith as they evolved over the years. It made me look at my own evolution of faith. It made me want to make some choices about what is mine “to do.” What can I take from Francis of Assisi in my own spiritual journey?
Francis was a rich self-indulged young man when he found God in the crucifix in an old church.
“....this immense and unimaginably good God, Who addressed Francis in the image of the poor, crucified one, also brought him to life, gave him purpose, rescued him from chaos....Francis had not only been lifted from the depths of depression, he had been lifted out of the prison of self.” (p.46)
To commemorate this day Francis composed a short prayer: “Most High, glorious God: enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord—that I may carry out Your holy and true command.” He lived this prayer every day for the next 22 years of his life.
These are the tenants of Francis’s Christian commitments:
- God is the absolute good and must have priority in our lives
- Our lives themselves manifest the praise of God.
- We give thanks for the beauty of the world.
- We long to believe fully in the triune God, Who created, redeemed and will finally act in love to save us forever.
- We long to desire nothing but God, on Whom we depend and in Whom we hope.
- We want to love God because He has first loved us.
- Doing penance means constantly turning to God.
- We are poor because God alone is rich, and everything good belongs to Him Who gives us everything. He is not unfeeling or indifferent, but He constantly draws near to us, speaks to us, saves us.
- For all these reasons, we are also concerned for the well-being and salvation of all mankind.
- We prefer the celebration and the living out of faith rather than disputing about it—hence we go among unbelievers and preach to others mostly by example. (p. 185)
Francis reiterated these beliefs 5 years before his death when his followers had grown large and the basic elements of his teachings were threatened to fall into the pot of other mainstream religious fraternities.
Francis’ fraternal order took root as many were drawn to his simple upbeat sermons and his service to the poor. He started with the lepers:
“The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them, and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” ( p.210)
I couldn’t help but judge some of Francis’ decisions. He had bad health most of his life. It was shocking he lived to 44, considering all of his ailments. Did he fast too much? Did his desire for poverty limit good food choices? Did his work with the lepers and the sick put his health at risk? He most likely had leprosy when he died. At one point , after a failed attempt to travel to Spain by ship he decided he would walk – barefoot from Italy. He had a desire to preach to the Muslims in Spain, even though he knew they would kill him. He always hoped he could be a martyr for Christ. His health kept him from completing the journey and his health worsened after. He said of his martyrdom: “To suffer this illness, even for three days, is harder for me than any martyrdom would be.” (p.199) But, he did what he did for his spiritual health, which was more important than his life or bodily health.
Francis embarked on and interesting (but crazy) journey to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. His desire was to bear Christianity to the Muslin sultan. His wish was granted with amazing results:
“But the sultan was a man who appreciated true faith wherever he found it, he also admired Francis’s character, his wholehearted commitment to his faith and his clear contempt for the luxuries of the world. ‘I am going to act against this advice,’ al-Kamil said to Francis when they were alone. ‘I will never condemn you to death—for that would indeed be an evil reward to bestow on you, who conscientiously risked death in order to save my life before God, as you believe.’ “ (p.161)
This trip further depleted Francis’s health as he attempted to help the many disease-ridden poor and dying victims of the atrocities of the Crusades. On the trip home his eyes became infected and he lost most of his vision as a result.
What most impressed me about Francis was his commitment to a cheery upbeat ministry. He never preached the gospel of fear, which was popular at the time. He believed in being an example of joy, peace, love and happiness, despite his poverty and suffering. He was a troubadour of happy songs of faith and a preacher of good will. I believe it was the secret to his success. His desire was for the “fraternity to remain ...a lay movement without the bonds of institutional and clerical structures.” (p.149) But as it became larger and the church became more involved things began to change and this is the one time when Francis became discouraged, depressed, and feeling he had failed.
Two years before his death Francis had a dream that helped him to understand his faith, which was based on his desire to imitate the life of Jesus and not on any perceived mortal successes or failures. Like Francis we all have many opportunities for conversion as life hands us trials and experiences that teach and change us.
Perhaps I am a kindred spirit to Francis of Assissi because of my love of birds. About 20 years ago I had a spiritual experience involving hawks on my morning walk. See Wings of Hope Birds have become a symbol of my hope for my family. Now in our new home Mike and I feed the birds from the trees visible from our living area. It brings us a lot of joy.
“...throughout the Middle Ages, birds were often used to represent souls, because they can fly up to God. They were also potent symbols of freedom. In the feudal system, the majority of people were tied to the land, and almost no one was mobile. But birds were unfettered, cheerful, singing, hopeful—everything workers aspired to be.” ( p. 103)
Francis had more success with the lowest level of society—the poor and manual workers, poetically symbolized by birds. In describing his last moments, Francis’s friends never forgot one detail: “Many birds, called larks, flew low above the roof of the house where he lay, wheeling in a circle and singing.”
Thanks to Rebecca Bateman for recommending this book and her great review that enticed me to read it. It has caused me to take a serious look at what is mine to do and I do believe that Christ will teach me if I seek him in faith.